Turkey and U.S. agree to establish Syria safe zone

Turkey’s Defence Ministry announced on Wednesday that bilateral talks with a U.S. delegation over the formation of a safe zone in northern Syria has been completed, with both sides agreeing to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to manage the safe zone.

A U.S. delegation arrived this week for negotiations on the safe zone, as Turkey intensified military deployment on its southern border for a potential incursion in northern Syria.

Ankara aims to clear the area south of its border of the Kurdish-led People Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of U.S. led coalition forces in Syria fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS), either by negotiating a peaceful transition or by forcing the group out with a military operation. 

According to the joint statement shared by the Defence Ministry, both sides agreed on the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three-decades.

As the final stages of the negotiations were being hashed out on Wednesday, the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was visited by his lawyers, who informed the public of the meeting in a tweet.

The agreement means a Turkish-U.S. operation centre will be established in Turkey in a short time to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone, the statement said.

The statement said the safe zone would serve as a peace corridor and efforts would be made for the safe return of some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Turkish defence expert Metin Gurcan said this could soon pave the way for the transfer of thousands of Syrian refugees to U.S. and Turkish-monitored areas in northern Syria.

The statement did not provide further information about the extent of the safe zone. Turkish pro-government newspaper Milliyet reported on Wednesday that Turkey wanted a 30 to 35 kilometre-deep safe zone, while the United States had proposed one to stretch 15 kilometres south of Turkish border. 

Foreign Policy Research Institute director Aaron Stein said this likely meant that no concrete agreements had been reached, and the latest announcements were a play for time to avoid accidental U.S. casualties in a Turkish invasion.

It does, though, temporarily put to rest fears of an imminent Turkish invasion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said as recently as Tuesday that a Turkish attack was coming "very soon".

Wednesday's announcement "means there is no more threat of a Turkish unilateral attack" on the northern Syrian territory encompassing Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, said Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a journalist and analyst whose work focuses on northern Syria and Kurdish affairs.

Milliyet said that while Turkey had 60,000 troops on its Syrian border, the United States had also strengthened its military presence in the region, with 22 aircraft moved from a U.S. airbase in Qatar to those in northern Syria. Milliyet said that the United States had transferred some 200 lorries of military equipment to the area.